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Seven for a Secret

Chapter Text

There are things they don’t tell you about getting sober.

For one, there’s a short period of time, while you’re processing old alcohol but not taking in anything new, when you stink to the outermost heaven. I’m told it’s because your body takes the opportunity to get rid of stored toxins from your glands or fat cells or wherever. I don’t know; I’m not a doctor. Point is, it comes out anywhere it can: mostly the pores, but also in piss, saliva or exhaled air. It varies from person to person too, in duration, strength, and quality. I’ve asked around, and for everyone I asked I got a different answer: metal, vinegar, sour milk, burned hair, lien that had sat in too many pockets. Some of them had also had issues with insomnia (often helped along by especially vivid nightmares) or constipation (thanks to not drinking as many of their calories anymore). Neither of these were problems for me, as I’ll explain shortly.

In my case, the purging seems to have started the same night everything hit the fan at the stadium; I first noticed the smell a little after midnight, once I’d worked up a decent sweat, and finally realized what was causing it a little before dawn. Fortunately, mine resembled the smell that you get from burning leaves or grass when they’re still green (which is worse than it might sound), so it was largely covered up by all the other smoke that started floating around before long—not to mention the cordite. Also fortunately, the flask that I lost that night was (A) empty, (B) cheap, and (C) completely lacking in sentimental value. I almost never used my favorite anymore, the one Taiyang had given me after he and my sister married, because I’d come close to losing it at least twice that I can remember. He’d understood. He’d been worried about how much I was drinking by that point, but he hadn’t said much, apart from not-too-subtly asking if I was doing all right.

Anyway, I’d drained the cheapo flask when I first heard the sirens, and it must have fallen out of my pocket sometime in the next few hours, before I had the chance to refill it. I could have used a slug or two during that time, I can tell you—for example, when I learned what the Polendina girl was really capable of. Under the circumstances, I can see why James got involved with her training. I may even forgive him eventually.

It was another day and a half before I saw an unbroken bottle of arrack, and quite a while after that before I got an actual chance for a drink. By that point I had cautiously asked Glynda about the smell, and she allowed, in her lovably undiplomatic way, that it seemed to be gone (my Aura was probably speeding up the process). Considering what I’ve seen over the years, I can’t say if any of the demons my brain entertained me with that week were the offspring of my sudden sobriety or not…and if my pipes were working slower than usual, well, it didn’t matter at first. It was a little while before I got a chance to address that particular need. Now that I think about it, my hands stayed steady through it all, too. I’d like to credit it to strenuous training, but the truth is I don’t know the reason.

By the time I (foolishly) gave Glynda that opportunity to comment (again) on my hygiene and personal habits, I had realized I was going through withdrawal, and I figured I might as well ride it out. The girls were going to need me clear-headed for a while, not to mention Ozpin, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that another disaster of some kind was coming—although that may have been the lack of alcohol talking. Even in peacetime, I hardly ever went out unarmed, and that would have been unthinkable anyway during the fallout from the Vytal tournament, but I started carrying more spare magazines than I had before, along with a sidearm and a few other useful items.

Chapter Text

Zzzz.

“Ruby.”

Zzzz.

“Ruby.”

Nothing.

“C’mon, kiddo, wake up. I’ve got good news.” When this failed to produce any response, I added, “It’s about Yang.”

Her eyes popped open. “Whatisit?”

“Well, let’s see. Her heartbeat is finally behaving, and the ventilator is picking up some push-back from her lungs. They’ve switched it over to respond to those signals, rather than you’re not listening to me anymore.” I trailed off to watch Ruby squeal and flit around the waiting room for a minute. “All right, all right, come on. Let’s go.”

Yang looked like a mile of bad road. There was no nice way of putting it that was still accurate. They’d managed to find and reattach those fingers and reset her left leg, but naturally they had yet to heal entirely. There were other bandages over her left eye socket and right shoulder, and the outline of yet another under the sheet, around her midsection. Once she was on her feet again, she would be reunited with that cycle of hers only over my dead body.

I’m not a praying man, but looking at her, I took a moment to thank whoever or whatever had kept her blood pumping until the Atlesians found her. That, and kept her eye mostly intact, to the point where the docs thought her vision might recover.

“Doesn’t look that different from before, does she?”

“Well, not really—but the signal on her heart monitor is different,” Ruby chirped. “I definitely remember that.”

“Good spot,” I said, tousling her hair. “What else do you see?”

“They’ve changed her bandages. She’s wearing the same gown as yesterday, though, which makes me think that—that—” She started blinking very hard, and I realized this had been the wrong time for a lesson. “I think they’re running short on those.”

I handed her a few tissues. “I think you’re right. It’s okay—no, don’t look at me. It won’t help. Think about it this way: the worst is over. Nobody else is going to die. Especially not her.”

“Well, you can say that, but—”

“I’m sure of it. Because she’s her. And you know if anything did go wrong, I’d find someone here to take it out on.” She made a noise that could have been a laugh.

We stood there watching Yang for a few minutes, until my scroll informed me that I had a message from someone important enough to bypass the “family emergency” filter. I took a look. “The boss wants a powwow, but it can wait if we need it to. How are you feeling?”

“Well…worried, but that’ll be the same regardless of whether you stay here. I think I’ll be able to handle it.”

“If I can, I’ll come back here after he’s done with me. Otherwise I’ll drop you a line.”

Ruby smiled. “All right.”

“Let me know if anything happens…and make sure to eat something. And check on your partner if you have a minute.” I gave her a one-armed, rather scratchy hug and took a last look at Yang before heading downstairs.

The sun was just coming up as I stepped outside, but the layer of mist emanating from the river and harbor hadn’t yet started to burn off. I kept my ears open and my hand on the hilt of my sword as I picked my way through the streets, to one of the Atlesian staging areas. There, I found a Bullhead that was loading up for a mission to the Emerald Forest, and convinced the crew that Ozpin himself wanted them to drop me off at Beacon on the way. They were reluctant to do him any favors, but I can be a very persuasive guy.

As a compromise, we eventually agreed that they’d slow down as they passed over the grounds, and I’d jump out. I think they were hoping the grubby old drunk would fall on his ass and give everyone else a good laugh. I’m pleased to say that this did not happen.

When I got to the school, Glynda was nowhere to be seen; I’m guessing she was off somewhere fixing a wall or something. Ozpin, bless his overclocked heart, had a fresh pot of coffee waiting for me. (That might actually have been Glynda’s suggestion; after all, she was the one who knew I wasn’t drinking the strong medicine anymore, and might have thought I could use a substitute.)

The first words out of his mouth were, unsurprisingly, “How are our students?”

“Surviving…both of them. Ruby’s handling it well, but I doubt that’s why you needed to talk.”

“Well, I am glad to hear it, but I’d have expected no less—and I do have other news.”

As it turned out, the recent pileup of crises had made our enemies complacent, and our own forces had gotten their hands on some interesting information. We spent a good part of the morning going over this, writing our thoughts on pads of paper when Ozpin was particularly worried about them being recorded. The virus appeared to be contained, but we had no way to be certain of that, and the consequences of feeding information to the other side that we didn’t intend to feed them could be especially serious now, when we had so many people recuperating or out on missions.

“Is there anything else on your mind, Qrow?”

“Actually, yeah. I’ve compared notes with Ruby, and we have a theory about what happened to Yang.” I told him one possible reason her Semblance had failed her, and my plans for preventing it from happening again.

“Interesting. Once she’s back on her feet, I’ll let Glynda know. She’ll definitely have some thoughts on how to test your idea, and she may be able to adjust Yang’s training if needed.” He paused. “Speaking of Yang’s recovery, I have an assignment waiting for you—but it can continue to wait until you feel that she’s out of danger and Ruby can return to the pressures of team leadership.”

“If it’s urgent, I can start now, but I was planning to wait until her partner Weiss was back on her feet. At the very least, that would give Ruby someone to watch her back while I’m gone.”

“That’s probably a good idea... Also, Miss Schnee’s case brings me to an aspect of your assignment that you should know about beforehand.”

I tried to make sense of this. What did Weiss have to do with— “You wouldn’t.”

“I would. You know perfectly well that right now, most of our agents are already back in the field. We don’t have many available for this mission, and I suspect that both your unique skills and Winter’s will be necessary for its success.”

“Are you out of your mind?!"

“Qrow, listen to me. You know that I never do anything without a reason, and you know that we’re at war. Ostensibly, we’re all still on the same side of it. Right now, I need both of you to get this job done, and you’ll need each other if you are to survive.”

I thought this over. Anger issues aside, Winter was a competent fighter. There had been signs of this when we sparred before, but the past few days had made it clearer. Her…dynamic return to Vale had been especially memorable. Also, now that I better understood her Semblance, I could admit that it would be very useful in some situations. That trick with the miniature Nevermores might have amounted to only a casual demonstration of her abilities, but it could probably be used for surveillance, or to send messages to or from places that were otherwise cut off.

“My main concerns have nothing to do with our skills. She’s too easy to get a reaction out of, and you know I’m not the most professional Hunter who ever lived.”

“Agreed.”

I glared at him. “The most likely outcomes are that we end up getting into a fight and injuring ourselves for no reason out in the middle of nowhere…or that we do manage to work together, but someone else manipulates both of us into acting without thinking, with pretty much the same result.”

“Those possibilities had crossed my mind. The fact remains, though, that we can’t get this particular job done without pulling others out of the field, and that will take even more time and force us to set aside some other goals. I’d rather avoid having to bear those costs.” His meaning was clear: You’re my friend and I like you, but if your issues get in the way of my work, I will not be happy.

“Don’t worry, I’ll do it…but do you have any suggestions for, you know, dealing with her?”

“Of course. First of all, whenever that gets difficult, ask yourself, ‘What would Taiyang do?’ Then remember that he and your nieces are counting on you to do that. Second, remember that she is not James. She works for him and follows his orders, but she knows, at most, one side of your history—our history—with him. From her perspective, your scuffle earlier probably only reinforced what she already thought she knew. Furthermore, she is not responsible for our differences—or his actions—and I will not tolerate you treating her as if she were.”

Wow. As I sometimes said to the girls, ‘Tell us how you really feel.’ “…I suppose I should go break the news to her that we’ll be working together?”

“She already knows, but it wouldn’t hurt if you talked to her before then.”

“Heh. You think I should try to clear the slate?”

“Officially, I think it would be good for the mission. As your friend…I think it would be good for you.” He flipped to a new sheet of paper. “She stays here sometimes when working in Vale,” he said as he scribbled. “James, Glynda and I know about it; I’m not sure if her sister does, and I’m sure her father doesn’t. James does not need to know that you know, understood?”

“’Course.” Ozpin tore off the sheet with the address and held it up, but made no move to hand it to me, so I read it over several times: 76 Telares Street, Number 154. “All right, I should be able to remember that.”

Immediately, the paper flared, and its ashes drifted down to the desk. “If you don’t find her there, try her sister’s room at the hospital. James found her asleep in a chair there two nights ago.”

“Thanks, boss.”

In the elevator, I considered my options. Winter would probably be easier to find at her hideout than in Vale’s sprawling (and currently crowded) hospital, and the later in the day I went looking, the more likely she’d be with her sister. First, though, I needed to find her street—without using my scroll, or anything else electronic that might leave a trail. Beacon’s library had a collection of printed maps that gave me what I needed; once I had my route in my head, I said my thank-yous and slipped out the door. I could use a shower if I was about to try to get on her good side, but my place hadn’t had running water restored yet, and finding somewhere that had would take time. I decided on an alternative.

The grounds around Beacon were shot to hell—far worse than when Winter and I had clashed there before. Still, I counted it as a mercy that so little of the fighting had reached the school itself, and as a small, selfish bonus, the dust had settled enough that I could waste a little time on an errand. A few areas of the gardens were still mostly unscathed, and I was able to cut an armload of flowers that looked like they’d be good for a while yet.

It’s my understanding that different types, colors, or arrangements can have a variety of coded meanings, from “Please do me the honor of marrying my second cousin” to “Please do me the honor of running yourself through with a broadsword.” If I came to Winter with anything that meant anything, it was unlikely to translate to something relevant like “I humbly beg your pardon for acting like a boar with an abscessed jaw”—and I was sure she’d be able to tell me what it did mean. Neither she nor Ozpin nor the others would ever let me forget about that, so I chose as wide a selection as I could, jumbled them all together, and hoped for the best. I found a stray sheet of newspaper that was mostly dry and clean, tore off a corner that had some mud on it, and wrapped the rest in a cone around the stems. Just after I turned to head back into town, my scroll chimed. It was Ozpin: Good luck. I turned back around and waved. I couldn’t see him in his office, but I knew he’d see that.

Chapter Text

Telares Street—actually that wasn’t its name, but the street I was looking for was in an older part of Vale, surrounded by industrial areas on two sides and a commercial district on another. It was easy to pass over (whether on a map or at ground level) unless you were specifically looking for it. One end of the street opened onto a major traffic artery; I had probably walked or ridden by it half a dozen times in the past year without giving it a second thought.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that despite the neighborhood’s age, its houses were numbered more or less logically and consistently. Winter’s place was easy to find. She hadn’t made any obvious improvements to its security—for example, switching the numbers around like in that one Spruce Willis movie—but that was probably wise. Hiding in plain sight is a lot easier if you don’t pull stunts like that.

Several rows of tiles had recently fallen from one corner of the roof, and something large had collided with part of the ground floor, but all things considered the building wasn’t in bad shape. There was, however, a scorch mark on the opposite side of the street that looked and smelled only a few hours old, as well as two wrecked cars farther down the block. I walked into the courtyard and up the steps to Number 154, pounded on the steel door, and moved back to the edge of the stoop, where I’d be visible from the front windows. There was no answer, but an empty house always feels empty, even if its residents have only stepped out for a moment, and this one didn’t. I gave it a count of fifty and hammered on the door again. There was a sound of something moving inside, but I pretended not to hear it.

I was about to try again when the door opened. It was chained—naturally—but it looked like a homemade job. For one thing, the chain was an inch thick. For another, each link glinted with Dust.

I jammed the toe of my boot into the gap. “I wanted to apologi—” Something—probably a foot—knocked it back out, and the door slammed shut faster than even I could see. Damn. “Winter, please. Someone we both trust told me that you’re staying here, and I really owe you an apology. I was an ass earlier, and I made all of our jobs a lot harder because of it. I still hate your boss, but I should have given you more credit—and once I found out Ruby and Weiss were working together, I should have shown you more respect for their sake. It was childish and stubborn and stupid, and I’m sorry.

“…I really hope you can hear me, because I’m probably never going to say any of this again.

“…Schnee?

“…Ice Queen?”

Suddenly I realized that the feel of the house had changed. It was empty.

There was an impact. I was knocked onto my face, my weapon went flying, and I felt a pair of heeled boots in my back and something pointy below my right ear. “You’re not Qrow Branwen.”

“The hell I’m not! Who would I be otherwise?”

“You do a good imitation of his voice and diction, I admit, but you could at least have splashed some liquor on yourself.”

“I resent that! I haven’t had a drink in days! And why would I come here to make a fool of myself like this if I were anyone else?”

“Don’t treat me as if I’m an idiot. I have at least one enemy at large—probably several—who can change their appearance and create other illusions at will, and I’ve had to fend off two White Fang attacks on this street in the last twenty-four hours.”

“If I could create other illusions, why would I make myself appear to stand where I was actually standing so you could get the drop on me?”

She thought that over for a minute, then stepped off of me, and lifted her sword a little ways back from my head. “Turn over. Slowly, and on your left side.” I did so, and was mildly relieved to see that it actually was Winter who was a few inches and one wrong word away from skewering me.

Like me, she had clearly had a bad few days. Her coat was unbuttoned, smudged with soot all down the right side, and had a long rip in one of the tails that looked like a claw mark. There were holes over the knuckles of both her gloves, and a bloodstain around her left ankle that looked like it might have been a handprint—not from a Grimm, obviously. Human or Faunus, ours or theirs. If I asked, she probably wouldn’t remember. She had her hair tied back in a ponytail, rather than the bun she normally favored, and that idiotic little curl at the left side of her face had been noticeably scorched.

As usual, she looked more than ready to kill me.

She was the most gorgeous woman I’d ever seen.

I was suddenly all too aware that I was still holding the remains of the flowers, crushed between my chest and my arm. I was also aware that most of the petals were now strewn across the stoop and down the stairs, in a way that reminded me strongly of something I’d done on a special occasion with an old girlfriend. I tried very hard to push these realizations away.

While all this was crashing together in my head, Winter looked me over. She did not appear impressed with what she saw, but finally she seemed to come to a decision. “How did I attempt to justify getting into a fight with you in front of half of Beacon?”

This wasn’t an ideal test—anyone who knew me could guess the answer—but there had been only five people present for the rest of that conversation. “You pointed out that I was drunk. Glynda pointed out that I’m always drunk, and I chose that moment to prove her point.”

She relaxed slightly. “Good.”

“My turn. What are my nieces’ dogs’ names?”

“They only have one, and his name is Zwei.” I nodded and started to get up, but she planted a foot against my collarbone and shoved me back down. “My turn again. What made you think I would know that?”

“Ruby mentioned that Weiss took a shine to him immediately. I thought maybe she might have told you about him.”

For a moment, it looked like she was about to smile—but of course not. She did let me up, though, and made no move to stop me from retrieving my weapon. Once it was settled across my back again, I turned around and started over.

“I came here because—”

“I heard you.” She looked down her nose at the wreckage of the flowers. “I suppose those were intended to show that you were serious?”

“I was hoping the fact that I was sober would accomplish that.”

She tossed her head and rolled her eyes, in a way that I interpreted as The jackass has a point. “Was that all that you wanted?”

“Pretty much. Considering what happened to the flowers, I’d offer to buy you a drink, but this isn’t exactly the time—and that’s the last place I need to be right now.”

“Agreed. Now kindly go away. There’s somewhere I need to be.”

“Hospital?”

Her head snapped around, and she tried to drill through me with those gunmetal eyes. “That is no concern of yours.”

“Don’t worry about it, I wouldn’t tell anyone. Except maybe Ozpin, or your boss, if they needed to know where you were. Actually, I wouldn’t have to. That’s probably the first place they’d look.” Gods, I hadn’t babbled like that in front of a pretty woman since the incident with that innkeeper. “Never mind. Forget I said that.”

“You can help me forget about it by going away.”

“Look, could I walk with you? I’m headed there too, there aren’t many clear routes between here and there, and the other option is for one of us to just kinda follow the other to the hospital, pretending like we don’t know each other and just happen to be going the same way.”

She made a big production out of sheathing her sword before answering. “Fine. Just mind your manners as best you can—and if we encounter anyone from Atlas, keep your mouth shut entirely.”

“I hear and obey, Ice Qu—” Oh. Right. Trying to make nice with her. “…Miss Schnee.”

“That is acceptable, Mister Branwen.” She started walking, without looking back to see if I’d follow. “We may yet avoid joining our respective relatives under the hospital’s care.”

- - - - - - -

Shortly after I had caught up, she asked, “I assume you’re going to visit your niece?”

I gave her a look. “That’s right. Yang, the older one.”

“Obviously. I heard what happened, although frankly I’m not sure the General was accurately informed.”

“Most of it was probably right.”

“It makes no sense to me. Do they have any idea yet why her Semblance never activated?”

“No, although I have theories that I’ve been going over with my boss. Right now, if you don’t mind, I’d rather talk about something else.” She nodded, her eyes on the next cross street.

Neither of us said anything for a few blocks after that, and I was surprised when she was the one to break the silence. “Do you know about my sister’s condition?”

“Ruby’s told me a little. They think she hadn’t fully recovered after the doubles round?”

“That’s correct. She has two cracked ribs and a concussion, although it was clear that she was starting to recover from the latter by the time I left yesterday.”

“Is she staying awake all right?”

“Yes. I’m told she asked for me when she first woke up. Since I’ve seen her, she’s only asked about her teammates.” There was the barest hint of pride in her voice, which made her meaning clear: Not our father. She’s a Huntress now, not a Schnee.

I wondered if their father at least knew what had happened, but I wasn’t about to ask. “Does she know?”

“No. Your niece—Ruby, I mean—” she had the decency to look embarrassed at that, although she didn’t actually blush—“thought it would be better to tell her the details only after she’s recovered further, and once you know Yang’s prognosis. Miss Belladonna and I agree with her.”

“Hmm.” Ruby hadn’t mentioned that. Then again, I hadn’t known I’d be paying either of the Schnees a visit before that morning.

“I know it isn’t the ideal approach to take, but her partner felt there was no point in burdening her with full knowledge of the situation while she was still confined to bed—and I must point out, Weiss is already under considerable stress due to her own injuries.”

“I think you’re both right. I’ll keep it in mind if I see her anytime soon.”

“I expect you’ll have to, unless you prefer to actively make yourself scarce when she and Ruby interact.” I glanced at her, but saw no sign that she realized what she had just said.

Got to play this right. If she hasn’t heard about Ruby and Weiss, she isn’t going to learn from me. “Not what I meant. I may not have made the best impression by picking a fight with you before, and the gods only know what she’d think if I just stuck my head in the door to say hello. Especially without you there, to confirm that we’ve patched things up.

“…I mean, that I’ve patched things up.

“…I mean, that I’m trying to patch things up.”

Dammit.

Chapter Text

Although we both knew there was no real point to it, Winter and I ignored each other once we got to the hospital, at least until we’d signed in and boarded the elevator. (Just before I got on, she glanced at the control panel in a way that made me pretty sure she was going to shut the door on me.) When I stepped off at the third floor with her, she finally turned around and straight-armed me. “Are you coming to see Weiss?”

There was something in her tone that said Answer carefully, so I held back my initial, simple answer—that the easiest way to Yang’s room was to take the stairs partway along the hallway, which only came down to that floor. “Yyyes.”

“This way, then.”

To be honest, I’d expected Weiss’ room to be larger, lighter, or otherwise cushier than Yang’s. The only real differences were the direction its windows faced and the amount of equipment it contained; perhaps I’d misjudged Winter, but then again, the hospital might simply have been as short on space as it was on everything else.

Weiss didn’t look too bad—and she was at least awake—but she had a dressing on her right forearm, and I noticed that there were very few hard surfaces near the head of her bed. Her eyes flashed when she saw me. “Mr. Branwen—good morning.”

“Miss Schnee. How are you feeling?”

“I’m recovering well, thank you.”

“Glad to hear it. I’m on my way back to Yang’s room, is there anything you want me to pass on to her or Ruby?” By the light of the Hunter’s Moon, please don’t ask about Yang. If I had to lie to her, I could, and I assumed Winter would go along with it, but I’d feel like a bit of a bastard, and it would probably catch up with me eventually.

“My thanks for asking, but Ruby was here a moment ago and I asked her to give Yang my regards.” She made a brave attempt at a smile, and I wondered if, despite Winter’s efforts, she knew or at least suspected the shape Yang was in. Not my problem. Besides, maybe her ribs are just bothering her, or she’s worried about something else.

I felt close to outstaying my welcome, so I smiled back at Weiss, nodded to Winter, and said, “It was good to see you—both of you. Take care.”

“Until we meet again, Mr. Branwen.” Weiss didn’t sound especially eager for that to happen, but I couldn’t fault her for that—and since nothing was broken or on fire, I counted it as an improvement over the first time we’d spoken.

Just after I walked out, I heard Winter murmur, “One moment,” at a volume I probably wasn’t meant to hear. Then she was standing in front of me again. For about ten seconds, I waited for her to say something, although it almost looked as if she was waiting on me. Finally, she put her hand out, and I took it warily.

When her grip tightened, I wasn’t surprised—I’d been fairly sure she was planning to play a round of the bone-crushing game. (Not that I expected her to get any satisfaction from it: James and I had practiced that routine on each other a lot over the years, and I was nearly as good at it as he was.) Instead, though, she yanked me a little closer and very quickly and quietly said “Apology accepted, by the way,” before dropping my hand like it was burning her. She turned on her heel and walked back into her sister’s room.

Just after I reached Yang’s floor, I overtook the fourth member of Team RWBY, leaning against a windowsill and gazing outside with her scroll forgotten in one hand.

“Morning, Blake.”

“Oh! Hi.” I kept walking, assuming she had something on her mind, but she quickly caught up with me. “Um…Qrow? There’s something you might need to know about.”

“Does it involve Ruby and Weiss?”

She blinked, shifted her shoulders around for a moment, and finally nodded. “Well, yeah. I guess you know already.”

“I have the general idea.” Clearly, I hadn’t needed to remind Ruby to check on her partner. I gave Blake a sideways look and cocked an eyebrow. “Did you walk in on them?”

“Well, I did knock, but when I said it was me, Weiss just said to come in. Ruby was giving her a foot rub, and Weiss had this look on her face that she was having trouble hiding…” She blushed. “I wouldn’t bring it up, but I know your family has a…complex relationship with the Schnees, and…”

“And it’s only getting more so. I get it, Blake—and I think they would, too. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it… Seriously, please don’t.”

“I know, I know.” On a fiendish impulse, I asked, “How are things going with whatsisname? The one with the abs?”

“Fine,” she said primly. I couldn’t tell if her bow was twitching out of shyness, smugness, or frustration, but she gave me a sideways look, and I nodded to let her know I wouldn’t pry any further. “I made my excuses after a minute and ran off to get Weiss a few things. When I got back, Ruby was gone, so I’m guessing she’s with Yang again. I was taking my time going back there, to make sure they had a little while to themselves.”

“Heh. You know, you make a pretty good teammate.”

“I try.”

“You been taking care of yourself?”

Blake gave me an odd look. “Well…I’ve been making sure to sleep, at least. I feel like I’m more confused than ever about—about what’s happening, but having people I can count on helps.”

“Welcome to our world,” I said, patting the hilt of my sword. In reality, sometimes it felt like all I had to show for my life as a Hunter was that I’d failed the people who had counted on me most. Others I had lost entirely, and I’d wasted a lot of nights—generally drunken ones—wondering what I could have done to keep them by my side, but this was not the time to share those stories. I hoped Blake would never have to go through anything like that.

A familiar voice cut into my thoughts. “Ah, Mr. Branwen—excellent. I’m glad I ran into you.”

Dr. Jared Gray was a thin, angular man with a seemingly endless supply of nervous energy. He reminded me strongly of Oobleck, in fact, but shorter and without the coffee cup. They might have been related, except that instead of sharing ‘Barty’s’ shock of green hair, Gray was balding, with a band of black feathers around the sides and back of his head.

“Doctor. What can I do for you?”

“Well, your niece’s condition hasn’t changed since last night, but as long as she remains stable, I was wondering if we could run some additional tests.”

“…Go on.”

“I’d like to know more about her brain activity. We haven’t had many opportunities to study Huntresses in her condition; it might provide us with clues for optimizing her treatment, both now and after she regains consciousness.” As he talked, his hands got more and more expressive, and I got more and more concerned that he’d crack me in the face with his clipboard. Blake was, quite wisely, edging silently away from him and toward Yang’s room. “In addition, it would supplement the data we’re gathering from monitoring her Aura, and all of it might be useful in the future, for treating patients with similar abilities.”

“Fair enough. I suppose you need me to sign something?”

“Just this.” It was a single sheet of paper, summarizing the procedure and emphasizing that, while Gray and his colleagues hoped it would be useful, they didn’t expect it to lead directly to any improvement in Yang’s condition. (Of course, it took them most of the page to say that.) I let him sweat for a moment, just because I could, before signing.

“Thanks very much! I’ll be right back with the cap.” He swept off, leaving a stray feather to fall to the floor. I walked on in the other direction and slipped back to Yang’s room, where Blake was just getting settled into the chair in the far corner. Ruby was—surprise surprise—tinkering with Crescent Rose.

“Did Dr. Gray find you?” she asked.

“Yeah. I told him it was fine by me.”

“So, uh…you think it’s a good idea?”

“I think it couldn’t hurt. What do you think?”

She sighed. “Well, I’m curious to see the results…but it feels like they’re expecting her to be this way for a while.”

“Could be. On the other hand, they didn’t take long to come to us with this idea. They might be trying to move quickly, in case she comes out of it soon.”

“Yeah…” Ruby was clearly not confident that this would happen. Privately, I agreed with her, but apparently this was my turn to at least pretend to be looking on the bright side.

“…Wait a minute. Ruby, did the doctor say anything to you about a ‘cap’?”

“I did, actually,” said Gray, stepping back into the room with a box under his arm. The gadget he took out of it was essentially a net of wires, shaped to more or less fit a person’s scalp. At the intersections of the wires were small disks that I assumed were sensors of some kind.

He settled the cap down over Yang’s mane (let’s call it what it is), adjusting it to cover her forehead and fit behind her ears. “As you can probably guess, these sensors will pick up electrical signals from different parts of Miss Xiao Long’s brain. They take simultaneous readings, which allow us to remove background noise, at a time interval we can select; in this case, I’ll start with every ninety seconds and see what that does. I’m not expecting her functions to change all that quickly, so a longer interval will keep us from having to stop and collate data quite as often.” He uncoiled a cable that ran from one side of the cap and plugged it into the same console that displayed her heart rate and Aura level. “It’s probably clear from the spacing of the sensors that the resolution on this device is less than ideal—” I had to take his word for that— “but for anything higher, we’d need to implant them directly into her scalp, however temporarily. And again, there’s the issue of the sheer volume of data we’d end up collecting. Besides, this is more than sufficient to pick up signals from her motor and visual cortices, her frontal lobe, et cetera.”

He turned to the console, flipped a few switches, and the screen showing Yang’s heartbeat changed over to an outline drawing of two brains, mirrored side-to-side. The clock at the bottom of the screen counted off about thirty seconds, during which nothing much happened. Then there was a quiet beep, and spots of warm and cool colors filled the display. It was only then—not proud of myself—that I realized each side of the image represented one hemisphere of her brain.

“In about a minute, can I ask one of you to hold her free hand?” he asked, pointing to the hand that did not have heart-rate and Aura monitors attached to it. Blake glanced at Ruby, but made no move to volunteer. I gave Ruby the “after you” motion, and she stepped up to Yang’s side. She looked at me and smiled sadly, and I knew we were thinking the same thing: If she were awake, she’d be furious about what that thing is doing to her hair. At the doctor’s signal, she took Yang’s hand, and after a moment there was another beep and the display changed slightly. “Wonderful! It definitely appears as if she felt that,” he said, pointing to a spot about in the middle of one hemisphere. “There’s no motor response, but at this stage I wouldn’t expect one.”

Ruby burst into tears, out of what must have been a combination of relief and continued worry. (That was certainly what I was feeling.) I swept her up in one arm, and used the other to give Gray the “you—get out” motion. He did, although not before double-checking that the cable was securely plugged into the console.

We stayed like that for a while—I don’t know how long, but the monitor beeped several more times before Ruby’s sobs gave way to hiccups, which slowly faded. Sometime during that process, Blake tiptoed over to us and put a hand on her arm. When I looked up, I noticed that her eyes would flicker back to Yang when the display updated. There was also something odd about the way the lights of the console shone off of them—

Oh.

She looked back to me, and part of me felt that I’d intruded on something that was none of my business, but the rest of me insisted that by now she was damn near family. In this room, more than anywhere, her feelings were my business, just as much as Yang’s recovery was hers. I held out a hand and mouthed the words “gonna be all right.” I didn’t much care who she thought I was referring to.

Chapter Text

When I came downstairs from Yang’s room, Winter was waiting for me in the lobby. One corner of my brain suggested I arm myself, but I recognized that as a bad idea, even before I realized her sword was hanging innocently by her side and her hands were folded in her lap. She looked over to me, then jerked her head towards the doors. I very carefully did not stare as she uncrossed her legs and stood up.

Half a second after the doors shut behind us, she asked, “How are yours?”

“About the same as before, although their dad just messaged me. He should get here tomorrow sometime… How’s Weiss?”

“Still in obvious pain. Still refusing to admit it, although she seems to be finding it easier to breathe. She also asked if we could try letting more light into the room, although I insisted she go to sleep once it started getting dark outside.”

“Good for her. And, good call on your part.”

Winter gave me a look, but let that comment pass. “Did you cross paths with Miss Belladonna? Apparently she had stopped by to lend Weiss a notepad and some books earlier.”

“Yeah. She, uh, came by to see us too. Why do you call her that, by the way?”

“She hasn’t asked me to call her ‘Blake’—”

“She won’t.”

“—and after seeing her performance a few nights ago, I prefer to address her with respect, and keep her at arm’s length, until I have good cause to do otherwise.”

I snorted. “Funny you should say that. I seem to recall making a decision of my own about you this week, for more or less the same reason.”

“Thank you, I think.”

My stomach sent up a little twinge. “Have you eaten?”

“Not since this morning.”

“Me neither. My place is actually not far from here, off Shiroka Street, and the stove still works. Unless you don’t trust me to cook for you, of course.”

“I probably shouldn’t trust you…but is there anything you can cook reasonably well?”

This was a fair question. “Noodles, mostly. On a good day I can make that rice dish from Mistral with butter and wine, but we’d be taking a risk. And I’m out of wine anyway. And butter. And I’m low on rice. Most of what I have in the house is work food: it’s meant to store well, rather than taste good.” Keep digging, old man, I told myself. You must be making a hell of an impression.

“Just promise that you’ll clean yourself off before you start.”

“Well, I’ll do my best. The water main that serves our district was pretty badly damaged, and they’ve been issuing us with just a few liters a day. I’ve been using that to take care of the essentials.”

She stared at me for a long moment before shaking her head. “That won’t do, Mister Branwen.” Oh no. “We’ll pick up whatever you feel capable of cooking, and some clean clothes—if you have any—and take them to my quarters instead.”

“‘If I have any’?!”

“Do you?”

“…Yes. More than you’d think, less than I’d like.”

“Then let’s not waste any time.” She walked off without me again.

I reached for the hilt of my sword, then stopped, took a deep breath, and cleared my throat. “Shiroka Street is this way.”

Winter hung back and watched my building from the entrance of a closed shop across the street, while I gathered clean clothes (including my last pair of pants), noodles, oil, a few packets of broth, and what vegetables I had that were still usable. All of it went into a canvas shopping bag, along with a cutting board. (I suspected Winter, being who she was, wouldn’t have any shortage of lovely sharp knives at home, but I was pretty sure I’d been a few years older than her when I finally bothered investing in the other kitchen essentials.) On an impulse, I found a razor and threw that in too.

When we got back to Winter’s, I realized that, however she had exited the building before, her front door was still chained. I pointed this out to her.

“I hadn’t forgotten. Give me a moment, and once I have the door open, be sure to jump across the threshold. Don’t touch the stoop and the floor inside at the same time.”

“You mean like I almost did before?”

“Precisely. And the next time you decide to make a grand gesture in the name of reconciliation…don’t leave your situational awareness at home.” With that, she jumped onto the railing of her neighbor’s stoop, vaulted up to the roof (managing not to dislodge any more tiles), and disappeared over the ridge. About fifteen seconds later, the chain rattled, a few bolts clacked, and the door opened. I raised one foot theatrically over the threshold and hopped inside.

“Boots off,” she ordered once the door was locked and the chain replaced. “Put them in the tray by the door, please.” After I’d taken mine off and turned to set them where she said, I noticed that hers stopped at the calf. The setup that went the rest of the way up her legs, which I’d assumed she needed in order to get away with wearing thigh-highs on the job, must serve as an independent layer of armor or something. Hell, for all I knew it was infused with more Dust. I set the idea aside, but couldn’t quite keep myself from speculating for a moment about how those straps unfastened.

I followed Winter into the kitchen, set the bag on the floor, and pulled out the clean clothes and the razor. “Which way?”

“Straight back from the front entrance, then the second door on the right. If you use that razor, clean up after yourself.”

“I will—and thanks.”

“What might I do while you’re in there?”

“Hmm…empty this into a pot and start it heating up, and throw in this and this, but not anything else just yet. Cut this up though, if you have time. If I’m not out by the time the broth is boiling, you’ll want to turn the heat down and let it simmer.”

The best word to describe Winter’s shower was “functional”: a floor lip high enough to keep the rest of the room dry, a bar for keeping one’s balance while washing one’s feet (which, again, looked like she’d installed it herself), and a tap that—heavens to Marigold—had a halfway intuitive design. There was also a small sand timer hanging from the showerhead, which I happily ignored. I was hungry, and I knew she must be too, but I hadn’t enjoyed hot water in days, and didn’t know when I’d get to again. I took a little more time than I needed.

- - - - - - -

When I got back to the kitchen, the broth was steaming—I noted that the stove was still on high heat, so I had some time yet to work—and there were small piles of onions, ginger and garlic on the cutting board. I cracked my knuckles, nodded to one of the pans hanging from the rack on the wall, and asked, “Do you mind if I use that?”

“Of course not. Is there anything else I can do?”

“Eh, I’ll take over for a bit. Put up your feet, get yourself a drink or something.” She shrugged, poured two glasses of water, and set one on the counter near me before retreating to the table. I ignored it until I’d gotten everything to the simmer stage and could step back for a moment.

“I have to admit, Qrow, you’re taking this far more seriously than I’d have expected.”

“This particular recipe…well, the girls like it.” I hoped the heat on my face was from the stove. If it wasn’t, I hoped it was only embarrassment from the admission I’d made about cooking for Ruby and Yang, rather than a reaction to her calling me by my first name.

She had me keyed out and catalogued, though. Even when I was under my own roof, four days out of five ‘dinner’ meant a sandwich or something, eaten while pacing around my room or staring at my notes on one job or another. When I was out working, I’d plunk down a few lien (or barter something) for other people’s cooking if I felt I could trust them, but there often wasn’t anyone else for miles. On those trips, whatever I had packed tasted just fine when I knew it might run out—or that I might be too busy to eat the next day.

I’d been telling the truth about being able to make that other dish—whose name I still couldn’t remember—but I hardly ever bothered anymore, since that same girlfriend I’d done the flower-petal thing with had had all she could take of my lifestyle. Cooking a pot of plain rice and simply drinking the wine was the closest I’d gotten the last few times.

The noodles only needed to cook for a few minutes once everything else was ready—the recipe I’d found said to boil them separately, but I’d never been able to figure out why, so I threw them into the soup and called it good. Once I had the stove turned off and two bowls of the stuff doled out, the kitchen was silent for a while apart from clinks and the occasional slurp (mostly from my side of the table, naturally).

After those had died down, Winter said quietly, “I can see why your nieces like this.”

Earlier that same day, I’d have assumed she meant it as a veiled insult to all three of us, but apparently we’d gotten past that point. “Heh. Well, thanks. And thanks for trusting me with your kitchen.”

“Don’t mention it. Besides, I may have to trust you with more than that once we’re out in the field.”

This had slipped my mind, and at that moment I wasn’t thrilled to be reminded of it. “Do you ever think about anything besides work?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I’d made a big mistake.

“Several things,” she replied in a voice that could have etched glass. “I think about my sister, and what could have happened if she’d had to fight off even one more enemy that night. I think about whether she’ll recover fully from her current injuries—or whether we’ll have another crisis on our hands before she gets the opportunity. I think about our father, and how he’s too—too damned proud to travel here in person to see her, or do anything besides make calls to her scroll that he knows she won’t answer. I think about the General, and how I don’t know if I can trust him anymore and he probably thinks the same of me now that our security has been so badly compromised. And ever since Weiss was out of real danger, I’ve found time to think about her classmates—your nieces, Miss Nikos, those boys from Haven… Some of them are even better than I was when I was studying at Atlas, but they’re still so young, and things are so much worse now than they were then. It’s only a matter of—” She broke off and studied the tabletop intently.

I came around the table and put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t seem to care. “Hey. I’m sorry I said that. I wasn’t thinking, but I know that’s a piss-poor excuse.” To this she said nothing, so I asked, “Should I leave?”

She took her time answering. “Frankly, if you’re genuinely concerned, it’d be better if you stayed. I have no desire to spend the rest of the night stewing in here alone, which is what will happen if you leave.” She shifted, and I stepped back as she stood up and walked to the window. “I’m not used to working with civilians, except for Atlas students…and although technically I became responsible for our citizens’ safety once my training finished, I’m not used to getting such a close look at what they experience at times like this.”

“I can understand that. And for what it’s worth, neither am I. I know Ozpin’s had to deal with that kind of thing since before either of us was born, though, and he’d be happy to talk it over if you wanted.”

Winter raked that ridiculous quiff over behind her ear and said, in what was probably meant as a casual tone, “I may do that…but if you tell anyone besides him about this conversation, I’ll kill you.”

“You tell anyone about it, including him, and I’ll have to kill myself.”

Amazingly, she did smile at that; after the initial shock wore off, I realized I was smiling back.

Before the moment could get awkward on its own, I decided to make it that way. “So, what did Oz tell you about this assignment he’s sending us on?”

She sighed. “You aren’t going to like it.”

She told me what Ozpin needed us to do.

I didn’t like it.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Ruby and I met Taiyang at the city docks while Blake kept an eye on Yang. She brought Zwei along, of course, and once the passengers from Patch filed out of the ship, he scampered over to Tai and led him back to us. Ruby launched herself at him once he was within range, and squealed “Missed yooouuu” as he and I staggered our way towards each other.

Tai put out a hand and I shook it, but I realized too late that it was a ploy. He pulled me in for a bear hug—which was much more effective coming from him than it would have been from, say, Ruby. “Good to see you,” he said quietly.

“You too, pretty boy.” He rolled his eyes. “No problems getting here?”

“Wish I’d been here three days ago, but it went fine apart from that.” He glanced into the city. “Shall we?”

“Feel like taking point, kiddo?” She smiled happily and led us on.

Once we got close to the hospital, Tai scooped the dog up and hid him in the duffel bag he’d brought. He let him out for a minute in Yang’s room, while Blake went “to get some fresh air” and I kept an eye on the door. It didn’t take long for Zwei to get agitated, though, because she wasn’t waking up to lavish him with attention, and we zipped him back up before he could start barking.

All in all, Tai took Yang’s condition fairly well. Ruby gave him the rundown of what had happened since the Atlesians got her to the hospital. I chipped in at a few points to clarify the details of her treatment, and when Blake got back she introduced herself and explained (or perhaps reminded him) that she was Yang’s partner.

“Is your fourth team member all right?”

“She’s upstairs,” said Ruby. “She got hurt, too, but…well…she’s at least awake.”

“That’s good,” he said diplomatically. He looked over to me. “Is that the one whose sister—?”

“Yes,” I growled. “I don’t want to talk about it.” His eyebrows climbed most of the way up his forehead, and I realized I wasn’t helping my case. In the hopes of steering him away from the subject of me and Winter, I suggested, “Let’s see if we can find Dr. Gray.”

Almost as soon as we left the room, Tai put an arm around my shoulders and lowered his voice. “Maybe you can help me out—I don’t really trust the information that’s made it to Patch. Do you know much about the attack on the Colosseum? I mean, about how they carried it out?”

“A fair amount. But for starters, how would you have gone about it?”

“Well, I know that only a list of registered shuttles are allowed near it, and they have to be flown by pilots who’ve passed background checks and are kept under a fair amount of scrutiny. So it seems like you’d have to go all the way back and slip some people into the training and licensing process, just to sacrifice them when the time came.”

“Exactly. But if you’re a group like the White Fang, and you’ve already lost a bunch of people recently to scuffles with Atlas personnel, or botched attacks…”

He gave the “who knows?” shrug. “I dunno. Did they really invest years in those pilots, and then send them up there to die?”

“Nope. We looked back over the hailing signals they sent, and the footage from their conversations with the traffic controllers. They had…borrowed some shuttles, of the same models they were going to use, and had them sitting in hangars or something around the city. The pilot would power up, but stay on the ground, and route their comm signal through the attack shuttle, which was kept empty. The controller would see the pilot’s image and the transponder signal and assume they both came from the vehicle that was actually heading towards them. They were flying the shuttles remotely, too, although we’re not sure yet what method they used.”

He shook his head. “Well, assuming security was doing its job, you couldn’t get past the docking bays. The main structure wouldn’t really have been damaged, would it?”

“No, at least not by most explosives, but you don’t have to physically destroy the stadium to call it a success. You just have to kill a few people and scare the hell out of the others. And if you coordinate it with attacks elsewhere in the city…”

Tai grimaced. “I get the picture. I’m glad you came back here when you did, by the way.”

“Just doin’ my job.”

- - - - - - -

After we got to Dr. Gray’s office, we had to wait awhile while he finished some tests on a patient elsewhere. Once he arrived, he talked privately with Tai while I went upstairs and looked in on Weiss. She was asleep, and Winter was elsewhere, so I moseyed back down and waited in the hall until Tai came out.

“How’d it go?”

He made a neutral noise. “I’m not any less scared for her than I was, but it was good to talk with him.”

“Of course.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “She’s gonna be all right.”

He nodded, but didn’t meet my eyes.

Back in the room, we made small talk—and by that, I mean that I sketched out the manhunt for the pilots who’d been involved in the attack, and scribbled myself a note to make copies of the few files I could share with him, and to order (many, many) copies of the wanted posters for him to take back to Patch. Not the cheeriest of subjects, but it kept him occupied, and gave Ruby a chance to learn more about how Hunters were expected to fight wars with information.

Blake was less than happy with the topic, but at the same time, she couldn’t hide her interest in it. I thought back to Oz mentioning that someone important to her had gotten involved in the Fang, and wondered just how important they had been. Important enough to maintain ties with? Important enough to get to through her? I wasn’t proud of myself for making that calculation, but I’d long ago gotten used to doing it. I’d thought much harder about doing worse things to people I knew better than Blake.

There was a loud buzz from Yang’s monitor, which was replaced by a high, insistent beeping. After a few seconds, a nurse rushed into the room, and we all backed away from the bed. He scanned the display, rushed back out, and shortly after that, we heard him on the intercom. “Doctor Gray to room 436. Doctor Gray to room 436. Code Gold.”

Unsurprisingly, Gray arrived like a whirlwind. “All right, everyone—Miss Xiao Long’s Aura level is rising rapidly.” He glanced at the display screens. “In fact, it’s approaching the limits of that machine’s measuring capability.” He began unplugging Yang’s sensors from the monitor. Once the last connection was broken, the beeping stopped.

“That’s good, right?” Ruby asked.

“For her, yes. I’ve been present for Aura spikes like this in the past, though,” he said. “They almost invariably result in property damage and the potential for injury. You might be better off stepping outside—the sooner the better.”

“Not a chance. Sister. Partner. Uncle. Father,” Tai said, pointing to each of us in turn.

“You got another release for us to sign?” I asked. Blake gave me a look.

“Bugger that,” said Gray. “I suspect you know her strength—and her temperament—better than I do. If you’re comfortable staying, it’s a bit of a load off of my chest.” He wheeled the monitor around to the door, and typed a quick message into his scroll.

A few minutes later, two orderlies arrived with a cart carrying separate heart-rate and Aura monitors. The design of their casings was a good ten years out of style, and the heart monitor required an adaptor to connect to the sensor on Yang’s wrist. Once they were hooked up, I noticed that their displays had only four or five colors and terrible resolution.

“Are these machines cheaper than the other one?” Tai asked.

“Yes, as a matter of fact.” If Tai was being sarcastic, Gray either failed to pick up on it or couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge it. “In addition, keeping them separated provides at least a chance that if one unit is damaged, the other will not be. I wish we had a cerebral monitor that could withstand this amount of energy, but the technology hasn’t caught up. No more data there until her Aura returns to normal—assuming it will.”

As a matter of fact, it wasn’t long before Yang’s Aura dropped back into the “measurable” range. The numbers kept going down, and leveled out not far above where they had been before, but it eventually became clear that another, more gradual increase had begun.

Gray stepped outside to send a few more messages. Blake left “to clear her head” and came back with several bottles of water and tea—I was the only one of us who was too proud to hug her for that.

At some point, it occurred to me that Ozpin should know about the development, and after messaging him I sent Winter an update for good measure. Her response, word for word, was “Send someone to shield Weiss if it happens again.” I told myself that she barely knew Yang, and that even if her concern for Weiss was excessive, it was still understandable. I had to repeat that many times before I could accept it; in the meantime, I had Ruby hold my scroll so that I didn’t send an ill-advised reply.

The next few days were all pretty much the same. Yang’s Aura crawled back upwards. Tai, Ruby and I took it in turns to stay with her or keep an eye on Zwei, with Ruby making token efforts to study (at Blake’s insistence) as Beacon got closer to starting classes again. Weiss getting released from the hospital and resettled in the girls’ room was the only really noteworthy thing to happen that week, unless you count the water getting turned back on along my block. Winter and I met with Ozpin twice, to learn the history of the case he’d assigned us to and start planning out how we’d approach it. The two of us got coffee together after the second meeting, and managed to act friendly for a couple hours until one of us could make an excuse to leave.

Tai stayed with me. This meant that we had to mount an expedition once my usual grocery store reopened—it seemed like his metabolism was only getting faster with age. He cooked most nights, though, and was better at it than I was, so I couldn’t complain. Once I’d told him about losing my flask and learning the joys of withdrawal, it was good to have someone around to keep me honest, too. Whether I was with him, Ruby, Yang, or Oz, I tried not to spend too much time alone, only crawling back to my room to sleep when I couldn’t prop my eyes open anymore. It helped.

Five days after he got to Vale, Yang started to wake up.

Chapter Text

Blake was the only one with her when it happened. She was holding her good hand—I suspect she was talking to her, too, but she never admitted to that—and when she squeezed it without thinking, Yang finally squeezed back.

I can’t help wondering what Blake felt at that moment, or what her initial reaction was, but at some point, I had to set aside my concern for her feelings and pay attention to my concern for her privacy. If anything else did happen before she hit the call button, she may tell us eventually. As it is…well, Yang squeezed her hand, she picked her jaw up off the floor (I assume), and she called Gray and Ruby and the rest of us up to the room.

It was late in the day. I had dozed off on the couch, while Tai flipped through the newest issue of Vacuan Huntsman, when both of our scrolls chimed: "I think Yang is waking up."

We were at the hospital not long after that. It felt like either a minute and a half or an hour and a half later; I still haven’t decided which, but of course the reality was somewhere in between. Ruby and the doctor had beaten us to her room, which wasn’t surprising, but I still felt a pang of envy over it.

Weiss joined us. “Wanted to bring the puppy,” she panted. “But I thought he might cause problems.”

“He might,” Gray said dryly. “You wouldn’t have been the first, though.” He grumbled something under his breath, then said to the rest of us, “I’d recommend taking the dressing off of her eye. I was hoping to wait another day or two, before checking to see how her Aura was handling that damage, but at this point I think she’d respond better if she woke up with both eyes uncovered.”

“That makes sense to me,” Tai said.

Ruby and I nodded. Yang’s Aura spike earlier had ended quietly enough, but there was no telling whether we’d be that lucky again.

The doc turned away from the rest of us and started typing a message on his scroll. In the silence, Ruby walked up to the head of the bed and asked, “Yang? Can you hear me?” Yang shifted a little, so she went on. “You got hurt pretty badly after the attack on the stadium. The soldiers from Atlas got you to the hospital, though…” She bit her lip for a second before going on. “Weiss and Blake and Dad and Uncle Qrow are all here, and we’re all okay.” She glanced at Weiss. “Well, now we are.”

Weiss put a hand on her shoulder. “We’re all fine, Yang. And you look much better than you did a day or two ago—if you’ll pardon my saying so.”

Yang didn’t respond to this, and I wondered if she’d gone back under. The heart monitor went on beeping quietly, like it had for days, and I noticed that her Aura was back near the upper end of what the other machine could measure. Good to have you back, kiddo.

Gray put away his scroll, went to the sink, and pressed the pedal to start the water running. “Once I’m done here, I’ll need everyone to move either to the foot of the bed, or to her right side,” he said. “I’ve flagged the update I sent as ‘under control,’ so barring any surprises, it won’t get any more crowded in here.” He shook his hands dry, pulled on a pair of gloves, and went back to the bed.

“Miss Xiao Long, can you hear me?” he asked. Yang didn’t move, but he went on. “Just a reminder—the rim of your eye socket was fractured in the aftermath of the attacks. We did an excellent job of matching the pieces back up, and your Aura should have sped up the healing quite a bit over the past few days, but we’ve kept a shell-dressing over it until you were ready to wake up. Your left hand and right leg were badly hurt as well; you won’t be able to move them properly for a while yet, but in the meantime I must ask you not to try. Now, I’m going to take the dressing off of your eye.”

She didn’t seem to have a problem with the idea, although her arms and face did tense up a little once Gray started pulling the bandages back. The crescent-shaped plastic shell intended to keep the bones in place came with them, but the gauze under that stayed where it was.

I don’t think any of us were quite ready for what was under the gauze.

About the only good thing I could say was that everything seemed to have stayed clean. Yang’s eyelids were swollen to about the size and color of a small plum, though, and parts of her cheek and temple were yellowing up too. A line of stitches ran just above her eyebrow, where Gray had opened her up to check for internal damage and get the bones facing the right way around. A little blood had soaked into them, and they’d taken on the reddish-black color that stitches always turn after a couple of days in the skin. On the plus side, assuming she did recover fully, she’d have one of those nice, rakish scars that are so much more common in fiction than the real world.

Ruby smiled sadly and whispered something to Weiss, who elbowed her gently.

Very cautiously, Gray pressed at the skin near the stitches, working around the outermost edge of Yang’s eye socket. I gritted my teeth, and Blake backed away without seeming to realize it, until she bumped into the wall.

“Well, this isn’t bad,” he finally said. The rest of us all turned to stare at him, and I was on the verge of asking if that was a damned joke, until he finished explaining what he meant by it. “The bone has clearly knit back together, although we’ll need to scan it to make sure the inside of the socket is still in its proper shape. Until then, she’ll need to be very careful: I’ll remind her periodically over the next few days, or until she’s relatively lucid, but you should all hear this as well. Make sure she pays close attention to how that eye feels when she uses it, as well as its range of motion, and let us know immediately if anything seems out of the ordinary. You can draw lots for the task of telling her that it’ll be three weeks before she can go back to training.”

The side rail of the bed splintered in Yang’s free hand.

Gray sighed. “Well, so much for that. I am sorry to break that news to you, Miss Xiao Long, especially in the way I have, but as it is, I’m expecting close to a fifth of the people I’ve treated since the attack to be back here again shortly because they didn’t have the self-control to ease back into normal life. If you make that mistake, you will not enjoy your second stay in this hospital; I will personally ensure that. Am I being clear?”

She waved in the general direction of his voice, then brought her fingers together as if she were holding a pen and pretended to write in the air. Ruby swooped out the door and down the hall.

While we were waiting, Taiyang took her hand and said, “You’ve been out for a couple of weeks, kiddo.” Her hand clenched around his, and he quickly added, “Ruby and your teammates are all right, and Beacon and the house on Patch are still standing. Oh, and your uncle and I are fine.” She nodded vaguely.

“A few pieces of the stadium fell on the city, though,” I added. “Once you’re out of bed, you might need to check on your usual hangouts.”

Ruby came back in with a pencil and a notepad. She positioned the pencil carefully in Yang’s right hand, then held the pad up and guided her hand towards it. Yang raised her left hand for a moment, meaning to take the pad from Ruby, but set it back on the bed with a grunt of pain. I glanced at the monitors, but they didn’t seem to have been affected.

Yang felt around for the left-hand edge of the paper, leaving a few faint squiggles scattered across the page. Once she’d found it, she wrote—with a surprising amount of control—I WANT THIS THING OFF OF MY FACE NOW. She tried to underline “now,” but her aim was a little bit off, and she ended up crossing it out instead. We still got the picture.

Gray hit the call button with his elbow, before dropping Yang’s bandages into the quarantine bin in the corner. He turned to greet the same nurse who’d been on call during the Aura spike. “Mr. Birch—do you think we can try taking this young lady off of her ventilator?”

Birch glanced at the notepad. “If she’s ready, we certainly should try.” He went to the machine and flipped one of its switches to “standby.”

The faint sigh that we’d all gotten used to over the last two weeks stopped, and Yang’s breathing grew labored. Quickly, but as gently as he could, Gray hit the releases on the mask’s straps and moved it to the side.

Once the mask was off, Yang was consumed by a truly awful coughing fit. As soon as it let up for a moment, it seemed like she could barely take any air back in before it started all over again. I was more familiar than I would have liked with the effects of ventilators, and I knew this was normal, but it was never any fun to watch. Ruby was clearly horrified, but managed to keep it together until Yang’s coughing subsided. I noticed that Tai was holding her hand, which probably helped, but from the way his lips were pressed together, he wasn’t any happier with what we were seeing than she or I was.

Yang’s breathing got deeper and easier after a minute or two, although there was still a little bit of a rasp to it. The doc eased her head up from the pillow, pulled the mask away, and set it on the cart next to the machine.

I broke the silence. “How are you feeling, Firecracker?”

She tried to speak, but after a couple of attempts that only ended in more coughing, she gave up for the moment. She scowled, and I could practically see the embarrassment and frustration coming off of her in waves. Eyes still closed, she fumbled for the pen and scrawled, ILL BE OK BUT CAN SOMEONE TURN THE LIGHTS OFF?

Ruby did so, and I noticed that Yang had woken up at a convenient hour, when the sun was on the opposite side of the building and getting lower by the minute. Taiyang said, “I’ll find you some water.”

The doc’s scroll chimed. He glanced at it and cursed. “You were doing so well, too…” To us he said, “I’m sorry, but we have another crisis developing down the hall. Birch, please check the ventilator back in downstairs and finish updating Miss Xiao Long’s file.” The nurse nodded. Gray reiterated his earlier instructions and warnings to Yang, then swept out of the room. His footsteps faded.

“This shouldn’t take too long,” Birch said, motioning to the ventilator. “If anything does happen while I’m gone…” We all nodded, and a couple of us glanced back to the call button.

He left just as Tai came back with a plastic cup and a liter bottle of water. Yang accepted the cup happily; it took her several minutes and a lot of effort to finish it, but as soon as it was empty she held it out again, and he refilled it.

Once the cup was empty again, Yang set it down at her side, but I moved it to the rolling tray by the bed. “Who’s still in the room?” she whispered.

“Your sister, teammates, uncle and I.”

“That’s good.”

Her right eye opened. It was red, which frankly had become all too typical for Yang over the course of the tournament—especially after her disqualification. She was oddly calm, though, which was one word I could only rarely apply to either of my nieces.

She glanced around the room, blinked when she saw me, and fixed her eye on Taiyang. After a moment, she took a deep breath and sighed, nodding slowly in resignation, and that was when I recognized her. I hadn’t seen that exact mannerism in a long time, but I could never forget it.

I knew.

“Hello, Tai.”

END